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Dutch researchers develop algorithm to predict earthquakes

Run club’s always at six, the kids’ piano lessons start at ten, check Google Calendar for the new meeting time— we live in a hyper-scheduled world, and wouldn’t it be nice if natural disasters cooperated with our agendas? Or gave us some warning? Volcanoes and landslides are still wreaking havoc whenever they like, but researchers at two universities in the Netherlands have developed an algorithm to predict earthquakes.

The algorithm figures out—no, really, it does—where tectonic plates run against each other the hardest by measuring which areas experience the most pressure and friction.

Underground, “there is a very high temperature and pressure, and also the hardest rock will flow—slowly, but it will flow,” says Dr. Kees Vuik, a mathematician at Delft University of Technology. “And then there is a difference in the strength of the rocks. So there are, let’s say, plates that are stronger than the surrounding rock, and then these plates are more or less transported, flowing through this flow of rock. And when they meet each other in the channel there, you have the highest pressure and friction.”

Vuik and his team spent the past four years studying the North Anatolian Fault, which crosses eastern Turkey to the Aegean Sea, since his geo-scientist colleagues at Utrecht University have the most data on that area. But within the next decade, they hope to map earthquake risk around the world.

But as the team maps a larger and larger area, more and more computers will have to calculate more complicated equations (see, this is why you stopped watching The Core even though Hilary Swank was acting her plucky heart out, wasn’t she? Because yes! All this math and tectonic plate stuff is really complicated! Oh, plus the thing with the nuclear ship drilling to the centre of the Earth was ridiculous). Now adding more computers and equations can lead to more inaccuracies, and communication between thousands of computers—Vuik estimates up to 100,000 computers will be required to map the whole world— can eat up valuable time. Consolidating that communication, he says, is essential.

Vuik also stresses the difficulty of predicting exactly when and where a quake will happen, and points out the algorithm’s predictions usually have a six-month margin of error. “…The location where the earthquake can occur, I think we can pinpoint better and better,” he says. “There’s a certain region where there’s high risk. A time, that’s much more difficult.”

Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the June / July 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

Transcontinental Media G.P.